The dieting seesaw and how to get off

Do you find yourself on and off diets, feeling either on top of the world or that you’re doing everything wrong? You may have found yourself on the guilt deprivation seesaw, and you can’t seem to get off.


What is the dieting seesaw?

A great way to think about your relationship to food when dieting is to think of a seesaw with deprivation on one end and guilt on the other.

When you’re dieting deprivation goes up, you’re depriving your body as you cut down on certain foods or calories as a whole. And as seesaws tend to, this rise then makes guilt go down. You feel great, you’re finally sticking to your diet and eating foods you deem to be ‘good’, ‘healthy’, etc. 

Eventually, you reach your limit. You don’t want to be on this diet anymore, and you’ve been good, right? Guilt is low and you relent, you let yourself have something that was off limits. A ‘bad’ food. And so deprivation goes down a little, and guilt rises. Because you feel a little bad for what you’ve done. Has this ruined your diet?

Maybe cravings start, or the what the hell effect occurs (you’ve eaten one meal off your diet why not treat yourself). Deprivation goes down as you start to eat more, but guilt starts to rise. Your seesaw is now opposite to how it started and you’re riddled with guilt. What do you think comes next?

You hit your guilt limit and start the new diet. The one. This will be the one you stick to for sure. And so deprivation goes up and guilt starts to go down. Back to where it started.

"But I’m not on a diet!"

When is a diet not a diet not a diet?

Even if we’re not following a marketed diet, we are all affected by diet culture. Depriving yourself, whether it be through cutting out ‘bad foods’ or cutting down on general intake causes the same effect on the body.

Some questions to ask yourself if you are experiencing this seesaw:

  • Do you have food rules on what you can and can’t eat?
  • Do you think of some foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’?
  • Do you try to stop eating at a certain time?
  • Are you trying to manipulate your weight through your food?
  • Do you eat when you feel hungry or when you should?

The fear of future deprivation

Even if you aren’t currently experiencing a diet, you might be thinking of dieting or cutting back. Even feeling guilt about what you’re eating - which your body knows - normally leads to a diet or deprivation. Our bodies are very smart and will start to mount a response to this perceived threat.

How do I get off the dieting seesaw?

You have to give yourself unconditional permission to eat.

Sounds easy, but it may be a step out of your comfort zone. Unconditional means nothing is off limits, there are no bad foods. Whether it’s working through foods you see as ‘forbidden’ and adding them back in or leaving the diet you’re on, the focus is abundance.

You can eat what you want, when you want. This removes deprivation, and guilt meaning you’re off the seesaw.

And if you’re worried that this permission will mean constant overeating and feeling bad for what you eat, know that you’re not alone. It’s a common concern when leaving diet culture. Having permission to eat what you want when you want is just permission, most people don’t actually do this. 

This is a major feature of the making peace with food principle in Intuitive Eating - part of a structured framework to improve your relationship with food. Working through a range of steps to help heal your relationship with food makes this transition easier.

If you would like to start working on this relationship with food or give yourself unconditional permission to eat, book your free discovery call with me today.

A note: I first encountered the Guilt Deprivation seesaw as part of the Intuitive Eating framework by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and they should be given due credit.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, Greater London, SE21
Written by Kacie Shoulders, ANutr
London, Greater London, SE21

Kacie Shoulders is an associate nutritionist and yoga teacher based in South London. She takes a HAES approach to working with clients and focuses on Intuitive Eating and movement.

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